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Transcript: The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, December 11, 2020

Guests: Rob Davidson, Dana Nessel, Josh Shapiro, Masha Gessen


The FDA has approved emergency use authority for Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. FedEx and UPS will handle the distribution in the coming days for the distribution of the vaccine. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the Texas lawsuit seeking to throw out voting results in four states, saying that Texas do not have legal standing under Article III of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has rejected Donald Trump's last-ditch effort to overturn the election but there are 126 House Republican members of Congress who put their names on a document stating their belief that the court should invalidate the votes of millions of Americans just because their guy lost. Some of the deadliest days in American history have occurred this month because of the outrageously high number of COVID deaths.


RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: That's going to do it for us tonight in such a huge news night. It's just been incredible. I will see you on Jonathan Capehart's new show this weekend, Sunday morning in the 11:00 a.m. eastern hour here on MSNBC. And I'll see you then. But now it's time for "The Last Word" where Ali Velshi is in in tonight for Lawrence. Good evening, Ali. It's a big night.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: We are not letting you sleep in on the weekend. Rachel, in 50 years, they will talk about this day. This day will go down in the documentaries that they do about this year which is like no other. I guess the question I have for you, is it going to be because this record-breaking amazing vaccine that will begin the beginning of the end of the coronavirus was approved?

Or is it the day that Donald Trump didn't wreck democracy, or someone stood in his way? And I don't know which one it is, but I know they're both momentous.

MADDOW: Yes. I think the answer to that question is yes. I mean, the thing that is -- President Trump wants like -- wants a split screen moment all the time with the incoming president and he wants to -- you know, this is a real split screen moment that nobody could engineer.

VELSHI: That's right.

MADDOW: The Supreme Court slamming the door and saying we're not listening to this nonsense and the FDA approving this vaccine and starting what will hopefully be a long slow climb toward hope. Both of those things happening at once. It just feels like we are turning a page.

VELSHI: It does really feel like that. I start the show with a smile on my face and thank you for all of your remarkable reporting tonight. This is a historic moment, Rachel. Have a great weekend and we'll see you Sunday morning.

MADDOW: Thanks. You too. Thanks.

VELSHI: All right, tonight as Rachel said, we begin with good news and that's a bit of a change. It's breaking news. The Food and Drug Administration has just authorized Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use.

Now, this is a major milestone in America's fight against the coronavirus. This approval clears the way for the initial rollout of the vaccine, which has been found to be 95 percent effective with no serious side effects.

The FDA's action means that millions, millions of highly vulnerable people will begin receiving this vaccine within days. This is the moment. It's an incredibly consequential development after months of suffering.

And if the approval of the first COVID vaccine wasn't enough, there is that other big breaking news tonight. The Supreme Court of the United States has dismissed the sham Texas lawsuit that aimed to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

The court's unsigned order was very short, "Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections."

That was the outgoing president's last best hope to stop the inevitable. But to be clear, it was a bad hope. Texas, this case had no hope of winning. Even the three justices appointed to the Supreme Court by the outgoing president, upon whom he staked his chances, would not agree to hear the case.

But all this news, as great as it is, should not overshadow the harsh reality of what has brought us to this moment. The harsh realities behind the court case and the COVID vaccine, more people in the United States have now died this year from COVID-19 than were killed in four years of fighting on the battlefields during World War II.

That is a profound loss for this nation. It is a loss that could have been avoided were it not for Republicans. Republicans are experiencing mass delusion with devastating consequences. Since the beginning of this pandemic, Republicans have denied the seriousness of this virus. And that denial is ongoing.

The Republican House Speaker in New Hampshire died from the coronavirus one week after being sworn in. Dick Hinch was photographed with about 50 New Hampshire GOP representatives at an indoor celebration last month. None of them, none of them were wearing masks.

This is just one example, but it typifies the Republican Party stance. Don't believe what's happening before your eyes. Take part in the mass delusion. This is not governing. This is not leadership. There is no serious effort on the part of Republicans to break free from this deadly fever dream.

It's important for Republicans to perpetuate some myth about freedoms being violated by being asked to wear a thin piece of cloth over your face than it is to see the world for what it is. People are getting sick and dying because of the Republican refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of this virus.

This is bigger than the virus. This fever dream has consumed everything in which Republicans believe. Look at this failed Texas lawsuit, 126 House Republicans and 18 Republican attorneys general wanted to overturn the will of the American people and hand the presidential election to the man who lost.

Almost two-thirds of the House Republican conference, including the majority leader, participated in this attack on democracy. They convinced themselves that the election of one man was more important than the fundamental principles on which these United States were founded. And they deluded their supporters.

Don't believe the real world they told them. Believe what we tell you to believe. And that problem starts at the top with the man who has condoned Republicans to delude en masse. The outgoing president refuses to acknowledge the almost 300,000 lives lost on his watch due to the coronavirus.

And just this week, he tweeted that he wanted to overturn the election results. He has gone beyond the lies about fraud. Now he is calling for a coup. Overturn, he says in his tweet. The outgoing president tells so many lies so often that I wouldn't be surprised if he drank too much of his own Kool-Aid and deluded himself into believing that a coup is actually a viable option.

But it's too (inaudible) to blame this president alone for this mass delusion. Republicans have lied to themselves and America for a long time to suit their agenda. This goes back to the earliest lies from Fox News in the 1990s, to climate deniers in the Bush era, to racist birthers in the Obama era.

Republicans have for decades cared more about telling people falsehoods that make them feel better about themselves at the expense of others than about telling them what they actually need to hear, and that is the truth.

Republicans have cared more about cultivating a mass delusion of lies and conspiracies than they have about confronting the real problems that we face in this nation. It's not hard to ignore a devastating virus and the voices of voters when you've been fed lies about everything else for years.

So where do we go from here? How do we continue when we have just one functioning political party and the other one on a never ending Ayahuasca Retreat? I don't have the answer to that. There will be a lot of hard times. You cannot break a fever like this overnight.

But you can speak up. You can make your voice heard. You can take action. You took action. More than 81 million times in November when you rejected the worst deluder of them all.

So in the end, you do matter. What you do and what you say matters. And when this nation is tested, people like you just might be the change agents that break this fever dream on the right side. Look at the incredible efforts on the front line workers who saved millions of coronavirus patients.

Those men and women did not give in to the delusions. They fought. They are still fighting. Look at the vaccine. We now have our first COVID vaccine because people like you saw the danger of the virus. You accepted the danger was real. You've got to work.

Look at the four attorneys general who just helped get that sham Texas lawsuit rejected by the Supreme Court. Those attorneys general, two of whom will join me in just a moment, did not buy into the delusion. They used their voices and their power to fight back against the lies and conspiracies to protect our democratic institutions, for which people have died.

Now, you might not be able to create a vaccine on your own. You might not be able to fight a fake lawsuit in the Supreme Court, but do not discount the importance of your voice. You can fight back against this delusion. No act is too small. This time of year is a hopeful time of year. The vaccine is hopeful. The Supreme Court order is hopeful.

Joining us now, NBC News correspondent Ellison Barber. She is outside the Pfizer manufacturing plant in Portage, Michigan on a remarkably historic night. Alison, it is quiet behind you now, but within hours, that will be a beehive of activity from which the cure, the thing that is going to end this virus will emanate.

ELLISON BARBER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ali. As I was making my way over to the camera for this report, I was struck by how quiet it was. A lot of the media at this point had left for the evening. Some are coming back now, but you could hear the rain and you could hear the quiet hum that you expect of a manufacturing plant.

But other than that, it was quiet. And I thought, this will not be quiet for long. Now that the FDA has given the official green light here, workers can begin packaging up the vaccine. And within 24 hours, we expect to start seeing trucks moving from this Pfizer plant.

They will put the vaccine in subzero containers on to the trucks and we expect those trucks to then leave this plant in Portage, Michigan and head to FedEx and UPS distribution centers in Memphis and Louisville. From there, we expect FedEx to handle the bulk of distributing to states that are west of the Mississippi.

UPS to handle the majority of states to the east. Obviously, there are some U.S. states and U.S. territories that will need to be accessed by planes, but UPS and FedEx will play a critical role for the lower 48 states in getting this vaccine out.

The federal government has said that the first 6.4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to states based on their adult population. Only about half of that, a little less than half will go out in the first shipment because remember, this is a vaccine where you need to have two doses of it.

The first dose and then another three weeks after. So Pfizer will hold some dosages back of the shipment they have now so that they can get it out to the people to get their second dosage when it is time. Obviously, this is an enormous moment.

We know that states will decide how they allocate and hand out the vaccines once it gets to the states. But here in Michigan, in this community of Portage, Michigan, there is great pride in the fact that this vaccine was made here.

Earlier today, I was sitting in this area just in my car, and two older gentlemen drove up next to me and they rolled their window down trying to talk to me and I rolled mine down. And they said they came by because they just wanted to see this moment.

They asked me who I was with and where I was from. They are from here and they said, this is historic and we're so excited to finally see this happen.


BARBER: Tonight, this community has been a part of something, of maybe a brief moment of a little bit of a sigh of relief, a step towards hope for something obviously for a lot of people. And I've met a lot of them through my reporting. Kerry Ahern (ph) and his family and (inaudible) Georgia Dequan Williams (ph) in Florida.

They were not able to have this vaccine in time, but for a lot of people tonight, this is a step in the direction that many people have been waiting for. Ali?

VELSHI: And many people still won't get it in time, but history has turned a corner tonight. And Ellison, for all of those of us who are expecting shipments, and if your stuff is a little delayed by FedEx over the next few weeks, be okay with that because they are busy distributing vaccines. Ellison, thank you for your great reporting on this historic night. Ellison Barber for us in Portage, Michigan.

Joining us now, Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room doctor in west Michigan. He is the executive director of the committee to protect Medicare. Rob, you and I have not had a lot of occasion to celebrate anything.

Every time you and I talk on TV, it's bad news. Tonight is not bad news. Tonight is the beginning of the end and it is a long, dark, cold tunnel until we get to the other end, but it has started. We can see that light now.

ROB DAVIDSON, ER PHYSICIAN: Amen. And I appreciate the way you are talking about it because it is the beginning of the end. This is a step. I know the president has described this moment as the end of the line for him and his attempt to fight back this pandemic.

Again, getting this vaccine out to at least 70 percent of the 330 million people in this country is going to be one of the biggest tasks we have ever undertaken in this country. And yet, we should celebrate.

I find myself surprisingly a bit emotional tonight thinking about all of the weeks and months that we have been fighting this and fighting the disinformation and people refusing to wear mask and calling it a hoax. The president calling doctors, you know, that are trying to profit off of all this.

We are just trying to keep people safe, you know. We need to keep doing that. We need to keep telling people to wear masks, but we know that there is a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. And yes, excited to be here tonight to talk to you about it.

VELSHI: Yes, you should be emotional tonight. Everybody in the world should be emotional tonight. This is really happening now. I'm here in Houston, which is, you know, has the largest medical complex in the world.

And I just can't wait to get out there and know that while I won't see it inside, there will be doctors and there will be nurses and there will be frontline workers who have risked their lives every single day to save the rest of us who will be a little safer in the coming days and the coming weeks. And they will be alive to keep us alive until we all get that vaccine.

DAVIDSON: I promise you, for the vast majority of us, our biggest goal is to be able to protect all of our communities. And I' have worked in the same community for almost 20 years. I have been trying to protect those folks for my entire career.

And no with this pandemic, I continue to do that by speaking out by promoting the public health practices and by working the clinical shifts and doing the work you have to do.

So, I'm excited to get the vaccine. I've already signed up on the e-mail to get in line and I'll be finding out next week when I get it. I want to share that with everyone.

I want all doctors and nurses and healthcare workers to share that to show people that we are continuing to lead the way because our next goal is to then protect everyone around us, all of our communities.

VELSHI: I want to put up a Gallup poll that was released on Tuesday. It's pretty big poll, almost 3,000 adults, and they said if the vaccine were approved and available at no cost, would you agree to be vaccinated? The yes is 63 and the no is 37. That 63 is actually an improvement. It was 61 earlier in the week.

It was in the 50s earlier. I'm not terribly worried about this, Rob. I actually think that once people see it out there, once people see the daily infection rates going down, once they see death numbers going down, and once it has been out there for a month or month and a half and they are not seeing reactions, I think that number is going to go up.

DAVIDSON: Yes. I think it's all about communication. I think if we are honest with people and we show them when we get the vaccine, we show them the next day when we may be feeling a bit off, because our immune system is responding. It's doing what it is supposed to do.

And then we can see those numbers, the 3,000 people in this country who died yesterday, who died today, the death that we're going to see in the coming weeks start to go down. The hospitalizations go down. We're going to see that together we can fight this back.

So, I agree with you. I'm hopeful. I do think there's a lot of work to do to communicate the safety and communicate the necessity, but I think we are up for it.

VELSHI: I want so badly not to talk about politics for a night. But I have to say, one of the reasons why people doubt this vaccine, despite the hard work that medical professionals and public health officials do, is because it has felt at certain moments politicized.

The new came out tonight or at least it was word -- reporting was out that the White House had ordered the chief of the FDA to authorize this vaccine by Friday night or submit his resignation.

Now, I want this vaccine out there with everybody as badly as you do, Rob, but I didn't want it a second before we determined the safe way to get it out there and that it was safe. And that's the kind of thing that makes people worry about this, right.

We want to know this vaccine was developed by scientists, tested by experts and being distributed by people who know how to do this. We don't want the president of the United States meddling for political gain in this.

DAVIDSON: Yes. I am choosing not to let the actions of one man affect the celebration we should be having. I trust the career scientists. I trust the people who were part of the vaccine trials. I trust the doctors. I trust the folks at the FDA who have stuck through these attacks that they've faced for months and potentially for years because I know that these folks are there to help protect us.

And so the actions of one president, although he seemed to have, you know, tainted most everything he's touched when it comes to this pandemic, I'm just not going to choose to allow that to happen and I think the rest of us need to do that. Just put the blinders on. Don't listen to what he is saying and then let's get to work.

VELSHI: Get that shot. Rob Davidson, you are one man but tonight you represent the medical establishment and public health workers and nurses and doctors and front line workers who have kept us going through this thing. Your work is not finished.

There are months ahead before everyone is vaccinated. There are months of long days and long nights and seeing your colleagues sadly still get sick, but we will be at the end of this and you and I will mark that day like we have marked this one. Rob Davidson, thank you for everything.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Ali. Have a great night.

VELSHI: Thank you. Coming up, more on the big defeat for Donald Trump in the Supreme Court tonight. The biggest defeat, really. They have rejected the Texas lawsuit to overturn the election results in four battleground states. The attorneys general of two of those states join me next.


VELSHI: It's quite a night when I'm 20 minutes in and I'm turning to the story that would, in any other world, in any other time be the biggest story of all. This is the other breaking news of the night. The Supreme Court of the United States rejected the last-minute Hail Mary attempt to overturn the presidential election that was filed by the Texas attorney general.

The court noted, "The state of Texas's motion is denied for lack of standing under Article III of the Constitution." The targeted states had responded to the lawsuit with blistering briefs, with Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, arguing that the lawsuit was "unprecedented and without factual foundation."

Pennsylvania's attorney general, Josh Shapiro, calling the lawsuit "a seditious abuse of the judicial process." The court's decision effectively puts an end to Donald Trump's absurd efforts to stage a coup.

Joining us now is Pennsylvania's attorney general, Josh Shapiro and Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel. Attorneys general, thank you for joining me tonight. I can't even begin to imagine what you have been through in the last little while.

Attorney General Nessel, you had all sorts of complexity in your state with violence and threats against your secretary of state, against your governor. But this one is one that the whole country was looking at. They were looking at your four states to stop this thing from going through. What did it feel like tonight?

DANA NESSEL, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MICHIGAN: Well, relief, but honestly, I mean, we're exhausted. This has been going on for so long and it feels like this process is never ending. I mean, most of us were hopeful that once the votes were tallied we would declare a winner and move on.

But unfortunately, that's not how this president operates. And I would like to think that that's it and we can just move on from now. But I don't have that total confidence because I could never have predicted that a lawsuit like this would be filed.

VELSHI: But there's actually nothing about this Attorney General Shapiro that we could have predicted, right? The threats, the calls by the president, the ushering by the president of people to the White House to convince people in state legislatures to overturn the will of the people.

In your state, in Pennsylvania, our state really, because we are neighbors, but in Pennsylvania, there were efforts by the legislature for months to try and figure out ways to adjust the outcome of the election.

I heard you say earlier tonight that you almost wish that this was heard and overturned or decided against so that we could put a nail in it. But I think Attorney General Nessel's point is correct. This ends one thing, but it doesn't end this fever dream that Donald Trump and his supporters are involved in.

JOSH SHAPIRO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF PENNSYLVANIA: Well, we did ask the court to quickly rebuke Texas and Trump and their enabling states and members of Congress. And that's exactly what they did. And we are pleased about it.

You know, you used an interesting term before, unpredictable. Of course, this president has been unpredictable. Of course, you know, we couldn't predict that all of these members of Congress and some of our fellow attorneys general, who took an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States would seemingly swear their allegiance to Donald Trump.

But the one thing that is predictable, thank God, is that our institutions held and the courts did their job. And they adhered to the rule of law. And that is something that we can all take great solace and comfort in.

VELSHI: Attorney General Nessel, your colleague in Texas, Attorney General Paxton, who brought this case, responded tonight saying that the argument is that the four defendant states of which you two represent, two of them, should conduct their elections in a manner that complies with the Constitution and all federal and state laws.

And he had a number of other attorneys general who joined in that lawsuit. It's just weird. First of all, the court was clear in the fact that they don't have standing. We have 50 presidential elections. We don't have a federal election in this country. But the bottom line here is they were taking issue with Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin's way of running an election.

NESSEL: Yes. Well, not only did our elections comport with state and federal laws, each and every court who evaluated this, some almost a dozen cases now that have been filed, whether it's state court or federal court, and whether they were judges that were appointed by Democrats or judges that were appointed by Republicans, they all found that these lawsuits were without merit.

And in fact, we did follow the law in Michigan. And I don't think that Texas would like it very much if states like Michigan or Pennsylvania were to sue the state of Texas because I think I had a lot of problems with the way that I saw voter suppression handled in the state of Texas, but you didn't see either AG Shapiro or myself filing lawsuits against the state of Texas, did you?

VELSHI: So what -- how do we think about -- you, Attorney General Nessel, put out a statement this evening that actually was given the moment quite conciliatory. You are hoping we go forward now not as red and blue states, but as the United States.

Attorney General Shapiro, the chairman of the Texas GOP put out a statement in which I'm just going to read you a sentence. He said, perhaps law abiding states, meaning those who supported the Texas lawsuit, should bond together and form a union of states that will abide by the Constitution.

Now, that on the face of it, is a nonsensical statement, but this is a real problem we have here. We have now -- I don't know whether it's misinformation or what has caused this fever dream, this delusion, but we actually have a problem where 77 percent of Republicans polled the other day felt there is something fraudulent about this election despite the 56 court cases in which not one instance of voter fraud has been discovered. What do we do about this?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, Attorney General Nessel and I are certainly right on the law and the law says that Joe Biden is going to be sworn in as our next president on January 20th. But I think we both agree that the problems are going to persist long after Donald Trump is out of the White House.

He has infected this country with hate and division. He has enabled idiots like that in Texas who said what they said, to carry on the way they did and have an audience of people that support that. And we've got a lot of healing to do in this country.

Look, we need to get back to the days, Ali, where we can have honest debates over criminal justice issues or tax policy or environmental policy. We can't do that when we can't agree on a basic set of facts, a basic set of realities that we can all operate under.

Donald Trump and his enablers have infected this country in a way that's going to require all of us to repair. And I know I'm prepared to do that work. Attorney General Nessel is uniquely prepared to do that work. And it's going to fall to all of us to labor in the vineyards and repair this nation that Donald Trump has worked so hard to break.

VELSHI: We have some immediate concerns particularly in Michigan, Attorney General Nessel. "The New York Times" reporting that Michigan's 16 presidential electors will get police escorts from their cars to the state capital as officials brace for protest.

Tomorrow morning I'll be speaking with your secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, who has been subject to intimidation by armed people. Your governor was subject to a plot to kidnap and harm her. There's an immediate issue right now. How do we -- we can deal with the political stuff overtime, but how do we deal with this, the fact that there are people who seem to be talking and acting like this is a civil war?

NESSEL: Yes. I'm very concerned about it. There's no question that it is a dangerous set of circumstances.

And you know, to echo some of AG Shapiro's sentiments, you know, to me Donald Trump is a dangerous drug to this country. Right? We are all addicted to him. And we either love him or we love to hate him.

But either way, it is literally shredding the fabric of our democracy. And we really have to move on because this is what he's reduced us to.

And I would love to go back to the time that we would, you know, debate these more intellectual topics and not just threaten each other all the time. And we need to do that or democracy in the United States is simply not going to survive.

But I'm concerned for the immediate future. And I'm concerned in regard to, you know, our elected officials. And also even the safety of these electors who, you know, traditionally were just nameless, you know, administrative officials that no one knew about and no one even knew about this particular process. But here we are having to provide police protection for them. We need American society to change and to change dramatically and quickly.

VELSHI: Thank you to both of you for your hard work over the last few days. Attorneys general Josh Shapiro And Dana Nessel. We appreciate your time.

Coming up, last night Steve Schmidt told viewers of this program that the 100 plus House Republicans who were in favor of the Texas election lawsuit support autocracy over democracy. Tonight, Nancy Pelosi said those Republicans bring dishonor to the House.

We'll talk about the ongoing threat to democracy with the "New Yorker's" Masha Gessen.


VELSHI: The Supreme Court has rejected Donald Trump's last-ditch effort to overturn the election. But there are still the 126 House Republicans, members of Congress, who put their names on a document. They signed it stating their belief that the court should invalidate the votes of millions of Americans just because their guy lost.

Those are anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-American ideas championed by this man on the left, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the man on the right, the House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and nearly two-thirds of House Republicans.

Here's how former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt described the cravenness of the Republican Party's move to Lawrence last night.


STEVE SCHMIDT, FORMER REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The competition in American politics is now between a democratic party, meaning a party that believes in democracy, versus an autocratic party. And we have never seen that.

When you see that many members of Congress breaking faith with their oath to overturn an election because they don't like a result, we're off the reservation to a place that we might not be able to get back on it from. We are one election away from losing the country to people who no longer believe in democracy.


VELSHI: An autocratic party, that's what the Republican Party has become. The "Orlando Sun Central" editorial board has apologized for endorsing one of those 126 Republicans, Congressman Michael Waltz writing quote, "We had no idea, had no way of knowing at the time that Waltz was not committed to democracy," end quote.

Today the Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell is demanding that those House Republicans who wanted the election overturned not be seated in Congress. In a letter to Democratic leadership, Congressman Pascrell cites an amendment which prohibits anyone who quote, "engaged in insurrection or rebellion", end quote, from serving in office. Writing quote, "Stated simply, men and women who would act to tear the United States government apart cannot serve as members of Congress."

We're going to -- we're going to be back in just a moment with Masha Gessen, staff writer for "The New Yorker" and author of the book, "Surviving Autocracy" to discuss this.

We'll be right back.


VELSHI: All right. Joining me now is Masha Gessen, staff writer for the "New Yorker". We just had a bit of a technical problem so she's joining us on the phone. She's the author of "Surviving Autocracy".

Masha, good to see you. Thank you for -- or good to hear from you at least -- thank you for being with us.

I have to ask you, you have studied autocracy. You've studied these places in which the law is not protected by the courts. The law is not applied fairly. And I have to say, my first thought after the Supreme Court ruling was that there is still 40 days of Donald Trump as president. And he just lost his best chance with the Supreme Court.

That doesn't give me peace. That worries me a little bit for a man headed toward autocracy what he does in 40 days when he's lost his best chance.

Masha? All right. It looks like we are definitely still having trouble with Masha Gessen. We're going to try and get Masha back to have her conversation because she has written the book on how totalitarianism and authoritarianism creeps into societies and affects democracies which is part of the subject we're discussing tonight.

I want to talk you about the death toll from coronavirus. This thing is far from over.

2,977 lives were lost on 9/11. Now, at that time, think back, if you remember -- it was an unimaginable number of lives to be lost in a day. And sadly, that number is no longer unimaginable.

We are either nearing or on some days have exceeded that number of deaths now on a daily basis because of the coronavirus. And the CDC Director Robert Redfield said that we are going to see more deaths of that magnitude in the coming weeks and months.


DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: We are in the time frame now that probably for the next 60 to 90 days we're going to have more deaths per day than we had in 9/11 or we had in Pearl Harbor.


VELSHI: Some of the deadliest days in American history have occurred this month because of the outrageously high number of COVID deaths. The recent coronavirus deaths are now on par with the battle of Gettysburg during the civil war when 3,155 people were killed in a single day. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, when more than 3,000 people died. And the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 when 2,403 Americans were killed.

U.S. coronavirus deaths have gotten so out of control that six of the deadliest days in American history have now occurred in the last two weeks.

Joining us now is the historian Jon Meacham. He holds the Rogers chair in the American presidency at Vanderbilt University. He is an unofficial advisor to President-Elect Joe Biden.

Jon, good to see you tonight. I started the show saying to Rachel that in -- I think you and I know that of all the crazy things that have happened in the last four years, this night will be talked about in 50 years.

And I'm trying to figure out whether it will be talked about because we got the vaccine and we're going to see -- within hours, we're going to see trucks rolling out in a way that we have never looked at a vaccine. This will be the most sought-after vaccine in the history of the world.

Or is it the day that the Supreme Court shut the door on Donald Trump's attempt to overturn democracy?

JON MEACHAM, HISTORIAN: Right. You know, when you do narrative non-fiction, you always look for coincidences in time to make a point. And this is one where God just handed it to us all. So you don't have to do a lot of stretching.

It's a remarkable day in the life of contemporary America, because there is a great amount of hope. But if we are being honest and if we are learning from the last five years, we also know that we have to have a kind of trepidation about what comes next.

This is an enormous public health undertaking, to vaccinate this vast population, to overcome skepticism about vaccinations and about expertise.

And then on the political side, you know, 60 percent of the House Republican Caucus, the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and the Bushes and a party that only eight years ago nominated -- 12 years ago nominated John McCain and eight years ago nominated Mitt Romney, signed on to a lawsuit that the Supreme Court, of which three members were appointed by this president, dismissed out of hand.

Do those folks suddenly have a kind of road to Damascus moment over the weekend? I don't think so. And I think that the thing we have to do is in a way return to an 18th century motto, a trope in the vernacular which was, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty".

We have to be vigilant about our health, about the health of our neighbors and we have to be vigilant about these democratic institutions.

VELSHI: And I think that is a great lesson of the last four years. And earlier I was speaking with the attorney general of Pennsylvania and Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania was quite concerned about the degree to which people are taking up arms.

There are ads in the newspaper for people to stand up for the stolen election. There are threats against public officials. There are -- is a call by the head of Texas GOP for the states that were on the wrong side of this decision of the Supreme Court to form a union of their own.

You are a historian. At what point do we stop saying that's just nonsense and something is afoot?

MEACHAM: Well, something is clearly afoot. This is Richard Hofstadter, a great Columbia historian from the middle of the 20th century coined a phrase called "the paranoid style in American politics". And it used to be described a certain fringe. That has now gone significantly mainstream.

And there's this sense that every battle is Armageddon, every struggle is existential. These are the forces of God's armies fighting against the infidel. And there's this hyperbolic atmosphere, hyper charged, fed in many ways by the president, the outgoing president.

And I think one of the interesting questions moving forward is going to be his continuing role in the culture and in the lives and imaginations of many of his most devout followers.

We have to take all of this seriously. And my own argument for citizens would be, we do share a common set of values in the country. I heard the Pennsylvania attorney general say we're having a hard time with a common set of facts. That's absolutely true.

But there is a common value and it's liberty and it's opportunity and it's making the Declaration of Independence real for all of us. And we can disagree on the means to doing that, but we shouldn't have to disagree on the ends.

And right now, it seems to me that a kind of task for entrepreneurial citizenship is to recommit ourselves to this notion that we can, in fact, agree on the end of America, meaning the purpose of America.

VELSHI: Jon, you know, the beginning of the Trump administration started with what was -- to some people a silly lie, a white lie about the inauguration crowds. And then "The Washington Post" tallied all those lies over the years.

And then the last several months was Donald Trump saying that this is going to be a fraudulent election and I'm not going to admit that I lost if it doesn't seem fair.

It was all setup, and that's what I worry about that people have been setup for this moment. How do you have that conversation with people? How do you say to someone you know you're being manipulated?

MEACHAM: You just have to do it. I mean I don't think there's a lot of pregaming. I really do. And I think we have to listen to each other, and I think we have to be open to learning from each other.

Politics is supposed to be -- supposed to be about the mediation of differences and the resolution of problems for a given period of time. That's what politics is supposed to be.

What politics has become is this existential struggle where it's almost Sherman-esque, right? It's total warfare. For me to win you have to lose everything and vice versa.

And there is a way, and I think it can be done in a values-based language of saying this isn't who we have to be. It's really not. And there was a consensus in this country, it was not perfect but it ran from about 1933 to 2017 and it was a kind of figurative conversation between FDR and Reagan.

And I think if we can restore some of that conversation by just having that conversation at least that's a steps possibly in the right direction.

VELSHI: Every smart person I talk to tells me that. That the answer is going to be dialogue not Sherman-esque total warfare. But sometimes it feels like that's the only thing we're involved in.

Jon, good to see you as always. Thank you. Jon Meacham, we appreciate your time as always.

All right. Up next, some information about the busy weekend ahead.


VELSHI: Ok, I'm not kidding you now. Joining us now really is Masha Gessen, staff writer for "The New Yorker" and author of the book "Surviving Autocracy".

But before I ask a long question, I'm going to establish that Masha is there. Hi, Masha.

MASHA GESSEN, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER" (via telephone): Hi, I'm here. Can you hear me?

VELSHI: I got you. I got you.

GESSEN: Oh my God.

VELSHI: Masha, we've been talking a lot during this show about autocracy and how you go down that road. And one of the things that the attorney general of Pennsylvania brought up, the attorney general of Michigan brought up that I just talked to Jon Meacham about is the care we have to take, the vigilance we have to employ to ensure that things like today, that Supreme Court case.

Nobody wanted to be this close to the edge. We were really there. We were on the edge of an election being overturned.

GESSEN: Absolutely. And we shouldn't think of it as institutions having saved us or (INAUDIBLE) held up. While that is undoubtedly true that's not the important part. The important part is that there were 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives who were willing to sign on to a completely nonsensical lawsuit in a naked attempt to grab onto power. It's so nonsensical that anyone could see it including them.

Congress is an institution. The job of Congress as an institution is to exercise checks and balances on presidential power. And so we have a president who has lost an election who's trying to hold onto power by any means possible. And we have 126 members of the institution that is charged with keeping him in check, who say yes, look it, we'll come along for that ride. That's a giant institutional failure.

VELSHI: How did that happen, Masha? How does that happen? These are supposedly normal people who are not fringe. We thought about conspiracy theorists and QAnon and white supremacists and anti-Semites and Islamophobes as being on the fringe of this. How do people like this decide that they can simply overturn democracy because of Trump

GESSEN: This is the question that we're going to have be asking after Trump finally leaves office. We can't possibly go back to pretending that everything is normal, that was an anomaly and we can just go back to business as usual.

What we have to ask is how is this possible? And you know I think there's some possible answers. One of them is that we have this idea that a career in politics is a lucrative career, a career that excuses people who enter such a career from constrains of the law and morality and values. That the job of a party is important enough that any means are justifiable to reach the ends that the party has set for itself.

You know, these are some ideas that are not actually crazy in the American political context. They're recognizable. And they logically lead to 126 members of Congress signing onto a nonsense lawsuit.

VELSHI: Masha, I've got 30 seconds on this. I want to ask you, do you believe as Jon Meacham does that as long as we're more vigilant about this and we don't assume that there are institutions that will protect us, that we actively protect ourselves that we can maintain this democracy or have we passed an important line?

GESSEN: There's always hope. We always have a chance, and, you know, our chance is much better than that of many other countries. I don't know. (INAUDIBLE) answer I think that imagination that led (ph) to this answer. But yes, we can do it.

VELSHI: Masha, thank you. I'm sorry for the struggles in getting you into the show but it was really important to get you into the show. So I appreciate your time.

Masha is a staff writer for "The New Yorker" and the author of the book "Surviving Autocracy".

That is tonight's LAST WORD. Of course you can always catch me again tomorrow morning and Sunday morning, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

I'm in Houston, Texas right and this weekend I'm going to be bringing you stories of front line workers and small business owners who are struggling to make it through the COVID crisis.

On the next stop of "VELSHI ACROSS AMERICA: SURVIVING THE NEXT WAVE", I'm going to hear about how a black-owned winery here in Houston, Texas is bringing small businesses together and how a Peruvian bakery is catering virtual celebrations during COVID.

That's it for me tonight but Brian Williams is going to be up with "THE 11TH HOUR" right after this.


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